House Floats Idea for Fish Inspections, but No One Is Biting

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

What follows is a fish tale, though this one is actually true.

Catfish, a specialty of the South, is not what you'd call a giant of agricultural commerce. Yet thanks to the Catfish Farmers of America, the Senate has included a provision in a farm bill to help the catfish industry.

The measure, championed by senators from catfish-producing states such as Arkansas and Mississippi, would require catfish to undergo inspections similar to those for meat and poultry. Catfish advocates say the provision would protect consumers from tainted food while skeptics (and there are a few) say it would keep out imports, especially from Asia, that compete with the home-grown stuff.

The story, like the proverbial one that got away, gets bigger from here.

The House did not pass a similar measure, but it also did not want to be left out of the catfish fight. So House staffers, anticipating that other aquaculture lobbies would clamor for their own benefit, drafted a much broader provision that's now being floated to members of the agriculture committees.

Instead of applying the inspections to catfish alone, the draft would require the Agriculture Department to inspect virtually every kind of fish. "Some House staffers said, 'We'll be rewriting this constantly, so let's just make it for all fish,' " said Keith Williams, USDA spokesman.

The department opposes the broader measure, which would impose a massive new requirement; for 2006-2007, U.S. consumers spent $69.2 billion on seafood, about 80 percent of which was imported. Besides, Williams said, the Commerce Department already inspects some fish, so why duplicate?

But the real surprise is that neither the catfish folks nor consumer groups endorse the House-generated draft. "It's a horrible idea," said Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America.

You would think that consumer organizations would want more inspections. But Tucker Foreman and Ami Gadhia of Consumers Union worry that the broader provision would introduce a less stringent standard for inspection at the USDA, which already is receiving heavy criticism for gaps in its meat inspections.

Besides, Tucker Foreman said, "USDA is not a good place to do public health."

The catfish people have a different concern: that the draft provision is so large it will sink the entire effort.

"This is threatening the heck out of my initiative," said Marty Fuller of Federal Solutions, the lobbyist for the Catfish Farmers of America. "We are concerned."

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